Karma is one of the central teachings of Buddhism. In the traditional interpretation it implies a very strong sense of personal responsibility. Each of us is responsible for our own mental state, be it happiness or misery. We can go further. In the explanation of karma common to many traditional texts, we are in fact responsible for all our experiences, including the circumstances of our birth. This reading of the idea of karma has led some critics of Buddhism to say that it is a cruel philosophy, and one that tends to social stagnation and the acceptance of injustice.
This charge fails because it is based on a partial understanding. Karma is used in Buddhism both to explain the present reality, and as a basis for an ethical system with an eye to the future. We are beings with free-will and our future lives will depend on the choices and actions we make in the here-and-now. But more importantly, the charge fails because it neglects to take into account another key teaching - that of compassion.
Compassion is a central virtue in Buddhist ethics. Compassion can be understood in different ways, but one key aspect is the idea of sympathy with the feelings of another. The simplest way of explaining this is to say that a compassionate person truly believes in the reality of the other person as a suffering being. We might almost say that compassion amounts to the same thing as respect.
This is easy when the person is someone very much like ourselves. But those beings most in need of our compassion are often different from us. Consider the case of the homeless in our big cities. Look at the scene on any busy street in downtown Toronto. We see raggedly dressed men and women standing or sitting against the wall, begging for change. We also see smartly dressed middle class people walking by completely oblivious of this human tragedy. It is amazing how many people have trained themselves not to "see" the homeless. This refusal to acknowledge their existence is an act of petty cruelty, repeated thousands of times every day.
The Buddhist teaching on karma tells us that every being has, in the final analysis, made their own suffering. But this is not an excuse for callousness. It is a warning. There is no essential difference between the middle-class person and the homeless panhandler. If the one who is fortunate now neglects to practise the virtue of generosity, she will surely experience poverty herself in the future. Before final liberation, the cycle of birth and death is endless and everyone experiences all possibilities.
Beyond the personal ethics of giving is the social question of poverty. While the emphasis of the Buddhist teaching is on personal ethics and development, there are scriptures relating to social issues. These have served as a basis for the Buddhist tradition of the righteous king. One of the qualities of the righteous king is that he looks after the helpless and the deprived. Thus Buddhism has always had the ideal of an activist state with a social conscience.
When we look at a society so blessed as Canada, and a city so rich as Toronto, it is an affront that poverty and homelessness is allowed to continue. Our governments are very concerned about the deficit, it is true, but the only way that homelessness can exist is with a huge deficit of compassion. The way to begin paying down this deficit is to look a panhandler in the eye, and give him a friendly word and a loonie or two. But the purely personal act is not enough. A society with compassion would find the resources necessary to provide homes and jobs to everyone who needs them.
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